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Oktoberfest: It’s more than a keg and a picnic

For the past four decades of my adult life, I have been attending and enjoying events called Oktoberfest.  I must confess, however, that I don’t know much about what that name truly means.  My Germanic linguistic talents are sharp enough to understand that the name means some type of October festival or party.  I am also aware that its origins were in Bavaria.  (I am sharp like that.)

Traditional Bavarian Grub

But, what in world were the Germans celebrating?  What is so special about October?

I hit the Internet to find out.  And, we all know that if it is on the Internet, it MUST be true.  This is what I was able to unearth:

It seems that King Ludwig I of Bavaria, back when he was Crown Prince Ludwig, married a princess of another royal Bavarian family named Therese Charlotte Luise of Saxony-Hildburghausen.  She was the daughter of Frederick, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg, and the Duchess Charlotte Georgine of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.  I don’t know enough about Bavarian royal history to explain how Therese was also a princess.  But, that is not what I was researching.  I needed to know what all the eating and drinking was about.  I should have guessed that a wedding might have something to do with it.

On October 12, 1810, the citizens of Munich were invited to attend royal wedding festivities held on the fields in front of the city gates. The fields where the wedding party was held were named Theresienwiese (“Theresa’s meadow”) in honor of the Crown Princess.  It, like Oktoberfest, has lived on to this day.  However, Münchner (what a group of Munich citizens are called) abbreviated the name of the field to simply to the “Wiesn.”  So, Sam Houston should not feel disrespected by his city being called H-town, since Princess Therese’s name seems to have been dropped completely for the sake of syllabic efficiency.

Horse races in the presence of the Royal Family marked the close of the event that was celebrated as a festival for the whole country of Bavaria. The decision to repeat the horse races in the subsequent year gave rise to the tradition of the Oktoberfest.  According to, the festival was eventually prolonged and moved ahead to September to allow for better weather conditions. Today, the last day of the festival is the first Sunday in October. In 2006, the Oktoberfest was extended for two extra days because the first Tuesday, October 3, was German Unification Day, a national holiday.

The horse races ended in 1960.

So… “What happened to the horse racing?”

I was not able to find a definitive answer.  However, many sources pointed to 1960 as the year that Oktoberfest turned into an enormous world-famous festival.  Many tourists had started making the pilgrimage to Munich to share in the festivities. quoted a Munich local’s take on the visiting amateurs: “There are many problems every year with young people who overestimate their ability to handle large amounts of alcohol. Many pass out due to drunkenness. These especially drunk patrons are often called “Bierleichen” (German for “beer corpses”).”

I am left to conclude that the rise of the “Drinking Dead” led to the demise of horse racing during Oktoberfest.  Inebriated zombies haven’t ever stopped The Preakness from being run.  But, then again, we do corral our drunks in the infield.

Much like the celebrations of the 4th of July or Thanksgiving for those of us in the United States, Oktoberfest has evolved into a time to appreciate all things Bavarian.

In addition to the beer, visitors to the Oktoberfest can enjoy some very traditional Bavarian dishes. Here is a list of some of the foods that are served at the Oktoberfest in Munich – many of which I have found at Oktoberfest celebrations I have attended in the past:


Potato Soup (Kartoffelsuppe)

Liver Dumpling Soup (Leberknödel Suppe)

Wurst & Meat Dishes


Cordon Bleu

Curry Wurst

Frankfurters (Frankfurter Würstschen)

Kassler Rippchen

Knockwurst (Knackwurst)



Nürnberger Rostbratwurst

Pork Knuckle (Eisbein / Schweinshaxe)

Pork Roast (Schweinebraten)


Wiener Schnitzel

Vegetables & Side Dishes


Potato Dumplings (Knödel)

Potato Pancakes (Kartoffelpuffer)

Potato Salad (Kartoffelsalat)

Red Cabbage (Rotkraut)



Cakes, Baked Goods, & Desserts

Apple Strudel (Apfelstrudel)





Plum Cake (Zwetschgenkuchen)


I’m not sure whether I know that I really know much more about Oktoberfest than I did before I started surfing the Internet.  I did learn about the marriage of King Ludwig and Queen Therese.  And, I found it interesting how one epic wedding party evolved into a worldwide phenomenon.

When I was in college in Atlanta, I was part of a group of students from the Washington DC area who sponsored a picnic in Piedmont Park.  As I remember it, it was about 300 people, a couple of kegs of beer, and a DJ.  The event was called the “Freaknik”.  That was in 1982.  By the end of the decade, the annual event started being attended by (mostly) black college students from all over the nation. By 1994, the event swelled to 250,000 people.  Over the years, the event was mentioned in lyrics by such artists as Too $hort, Outkast, Jermaine Dupri, and others.  In 1996, the Atlanta police department was out in full force to control the crowds that would “take over” the city during the Freaknik weekend.  Ultimately, in April of 2010, Atlanta officials said “there are no permitted Freaknik-related events inside the city limits.” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed also said that “he will be tough and even sue organizers of any Freaknik-related activities who violate city guidelines”

Why bring up Freaknik?  I know that the comparison seems spurious. However, the most impressive thing about Oktoberfest to me is that it has been alive and kicking for 204 years.  Our little picnic cycled out of control and died at age 28.

If I am ever part of an outdoor event again that might have growth potential, I’ll make sure that we book a couple of royals to wed.
Howard Fletcher is a journalist and podcaster who lives in Silver Spring, MD.  

The Number One 2 Podcast is available on iTunes, SoundCloud, and Buzzsprout.

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